Jurgen Klinsmann says “high probability” Donovan part of September’s World Cup Qualifying

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The lasting influence of this year’s Gold Cup may be at an individual level While winning a confederation title will always be an honor to the players who made up the United States’ CONCACAF champions, the tournament came in the middle of a World Cup cycle. Not only did that mean many key players were rested, but it also placed the past two weeks’ results in the context of the States’ path to Brazil. Which players were improving their stocks was more discussed than the matches’ results.

That perspective wasn’t lost on the media post-match, a group who were quick to ask about Landon Donovan. After a tournament where the returning attacker was clearly the competition’s best player, there was a natural curiosity as to his status with the national team. Is he back in the fold, fully re-established after this winter’s sabbatical? Or will the U.S. continue to forge through qualifying without him.

You don’t have to be the U.S.’s most ardent fan to know the answer. If you’re playing well and fit what Klinsmann’s trying to accomplish, you’re going to be called in. And after raising his Most Valuable Players’ trophy after today’s victory, there’s no doubt Donovan’s both playing well and fits.

Klinsmann:

It’s absolutely normal that there’s a high probability that he joins us for the September games. It’s absolutely a non-discussion. But he also knows that it’s always the present. It’s always about today and tomorrow. He took that very well. He accepted that role. He swallowed a couple pills, which is normal.

Donovan’s biggest backers won’t want to see references to “pills,” taking things well, or anything short of a guarantee of a qualifying role. But beyond that loyalty-fueled perspective, this is as positive an outcome as Donovan could have hoped for from this tournament.

There are very few players Klinsmann would give a rosier prognosis than “high probability.” Maybe the Dempseys, Bradleys,and Howards of the world get some rope, but we saw what happened to Jozy Altidore last November. He international play waned, he ceased fitting what Klinsmann was trying to do, and he missed a call up. Nine months later Altidore seems like an obligatory call up, but his arc also shows how quickly things can change.

What if a player’s form dips? Or they get injured? Or other players step up, or there a specific tactical considerations that influence a callup? Along with this absence from previous qualifying teams, that’s where a player like Donovan goes from lock to high probability, and while other coaches may be more willing to give assurances, this is how Jurgen Klinsmann goes about his business. It’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Besides, any lingering conspiracies about Donovan being held out because of some personality conflict or internal rift were addressed by the player himself, reflecting on the process that led to his Gold Cup triumph:

I wasn’t in a place to contribute then … I wanted to come back and contribute, so it feels good to help.

Provided Donovan carries his Gold Cup form into the MLS’s second half, he’ll be called in come September. There doesn’t need to be a big sit down. There are no hatchets to bury. He’s a player in the pool, and when he warrants a spot, he gets it.

The more interesting consideration is what, exactly, that entails. The U.S. is at the top of their qualifying group, seemingly cruising to a spot in Brazil. While that doesn’t preclude Donovan claiming a spot in Klinsmann’s starting XI, it does hint there’s some competition. Something is working right now. There may be nothing to fix. In that picture, where would the Galaxy star fit in? And at what expense?

Some feel he’s best suited for an impact sub’s role. At least initially. Others obviously feel a player of his talent should go right into the team. If he does, does that mean Graham Zusi loses his spot? That was the dynamic that seemed to be in place last month, but now it’s worth wondering if Donovan would move Fabian Johnson to left back and take the left midfielder’s spot.

But also consider: Donovan was used exclusively as a supporting striker in the Gold Cup. While that may have been a function of the squad’s make up, did it also hint at what Klinsmann sees as Donovan’s best role? Be it as Clint Dempsey’s understudy or moving the team’s captain to another position?

As the cliché goes, these are all problems a coach would love to have. And as a credit to how far Donovan’s come in the last few months, they’re also the most pertinent questions surrounding his national team future. Though there’s still a chance he won’t be called into September’s qualifiers, all indications are he will be. Now the discussion shifts to how (and where) he fits.

 

Luiz back in Chelsea squad after being dropped by Conte

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David Luiz‘s pair of stints at Chelsea have been nothing short of a roller-coaster ride of emotions — joyous highs and painful lows.

[ MORE: Pogba, Zlatan back form injuries; available this weekend ]

After returning to the club for a second time in the summer of 2016, Luiz instantly slotted into Antonio Conte‘s three-man backline and was a pivotal part of the Blues’ title-winning team last season.

Much like the second half of his first four seasons at Chelsea, Luiz’s second season (the second time around) has started so hotly. After playing eight of the first 10 games during Chelsea’s ongoing title defense, Luiz was unexpectedly dropped from the squad for the victory over Manchester United.

Now, two weeks later, Conte has announced that Luiz has rejoined the squad and is available for selection when his side visits West Brom on Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET, on NBC Sports Gold) — quotes from the Guardian:

“David Luiz is in the squad, yes. [His exclusion] was a technical decision. When it’s a technical decision every player has to react well and accept my decision. It’s normal, this.

“I like to speak about the team and the next game that we have to pay attention to. This is the most important thing, not speaking about a single player. I repeat: I don’t like to speak about a single player.”

Pogba, Zlatan, Rojo return from injuries for Man Utd-Newcastle

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The only saving grace when it comes to injuries is that, eventually (usually), players recover from them and return to the team.

[ MORE: 2018 World Cup Power Rankings — who comes out on top? ]

It’s been a long seven months for the soccer world to be without Zlatan Ibrahimovic (torn ACL on April 20), just as it’s been a painfully long 10 weeks for Manchester United fans following Paul Pogba‘s hamstring injury on Sept. 12. Man United have dropped eight points during the latter’s absence and now coincidentally sit eight points behind Manchester City in the Premier League title race.

A bit of good news on this Friday: United manager Jose Mourinho announced today that the dynamic duo, along with defender Marcos Rojo (knee ligament damage on April 20) have returned to full fitness and will be available for selection during Saturday’s home clash with Newcastle United (Watch live, 12:30 p.m. ET, on NBC and NBCSports.com) — quotes from ManUtd.com:

“The players that stayed here and [were] recovering from injuries, even the ones that are recovering from big injuries, they are ready to play — Pogba, Ibrahimovic and Marcos Rojo.”

“[Ibrahimovic] made a full recovery. Now you cannot expect him to be ready to play 90 minutes or to be ready to play consecutive matches like he did all his career.

“Now he needs time to be back to his level, his fitness, his confidence, his sharpness, his everything. But, from the clinical point of view, to be good and ready is fantastic.”

2018 World Cup Power Rankings — 7 months B.W.C.

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209 days — that’s how long the world is still being made to wait for the opening game of the 2018 World Cup. It’s close, in that all 32 berths have been secured, but still so far, in that the draw is still two weeks away.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s 2018 World Cup coverage | USMNT | Premier League ]

Perhaps then, and only then, will it begin to feel really real.

According to our esteemed panelists — Joe Prince-Wright, Nicholas Mendola, Kyle Bonn, Matt Reed, Dan Karell and yours truly — four clear-cut favorites for the semifinals have separated themselves from the rest of the pack, followed by another six or eight sides with one half of their squad firing on all cylinders but some serious kinks to work out elsewhere.

[ MORE: Round 1 of the WC power rankings | Round 2 ]

Finally, the latest edition of PST’s 2018 World Cup Power Rankings, now featuring all 32 teams qualified for Russia…

Team Points Best Worst
1 (1) Germany 189 1 2
2 (2) Brazil 188 1 3
3 (4) Spain 177 3 5
4 (3) France 176 3 5
5 (8) Argentina 158 4 10
6 (5) Belgium 156 4 10
7 (7) Portugal 153 6 10
8 (11) England 150 5 12
9 (6) Uruguay 141 6 14
10 (9) Colombia 140 7 12
11 (10) Mexico 129 8 14
12 (12) Poland 125 10 14
13 (20) Croatia 118 7 20
14 (17) Switzerland 115 12 16
15 (NR) Sweden 92 16 19
16 (NR) Denmark 86 13 23
17 (NR) Serbia 83 9 28
18 (NR) Peru 80 15 25
19 (15) Iceland 79 15 24
20 (16) Japan 71 16 27
21 (NR) Egypt 66 18 27
22 (NR) South Korea 64 13 32
23 (NR) Senegal 63 17 26
24 (18) Nigeria 58 15 27
25 (19) Costa Rica 57 14 29
26 (NR) Morocco 48 18 29
27 (NR) Australia 45 22 30
28 (NR) Russia 36 20 32
29 (NR) Iran 34 22 31
30 (NR) Tunisia 30 23 31
31 (NR) Panama 19 28 32
32 (NR) Saudi Arabia 9 31 32

Zidane anxiously awaiting goals from Ronaldo

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MADRID (AP) For Zinedine Zidane, the Madrid derby on Saturday is just what Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema need to break their scoring slump.

The Real Madrid forwards have been struggling in the Spanish league, with just two goals between them.

Ronaldo, while striking six times in the Champions League, has tallied only one in seven Liga appearances.

Benzema is having an even tougher time, with just two in 12 matches across all competitions.

“It’s true that this is not normal, but they just need to keep training and keep trying as they have been doing,” Zidane says.

“You don’t need to tell Karim and Cristiano that they should train more, it’s something they do. They will go out on the pitch and score, I am sure of it.”

Over his career, Ronaldo has thrived against Real’s crosstown rival, Atletico. He holds the record for the Spanish capital derby with 21 goals.

Benzema’s performances, however, have not been as impressive, with three goals in his last 14 league matches against Atletico.

Zidane says Ronaldo and Benzema focused on recovering their scoring form last week during the international break, when they stayed at the club instead of joining their national sides.

“We have been working on it,” he said. “What I want is that my players, my forwards, play well, and tomorrow is a good match for them to keep trying.”

Their scoring droughts have contributed to Real’s irregular season.

Real is in third place and level on points with Atletico, which is fourth after having trouble winning at its new Wanda Metropolitan Stadium.

Both sides need a victory to keep pace with leader Barcelona, which visits Leganes hours earlier.

If Barcelona wins, Madrid and Atletico will be staring at an 11-point gap by kickoff.